A Meaty Dilemma
by Mihai Duduta
Here I am again, in front of the deli at La Verde's, unable to decide what I should get for lunch. Well, some decisions have already been made, like the fact that I'll get a sub and not a sandwich. But what kind of sub should it be? Ideally, I want the eggplant parma, but what if they don't have it? They usually run out, so maybe I should get the tuna. But the tuna's not warm—unless you specifically ask for it, but then they forget all the other ingredients and it's really boring—and I want to eat something warm for lunch. So what I really should get is the honey barbeque chicken sub. Yeah, that's the best choice!
And I order the sub, and the moment I pay, this immense feeling of guilt falls on me. You did it again! Did what? Got chicken! So? So you said you'd stop eating meat, you said so this morning, while you were brushing your teeth. Then you ate a delicious meat-free breakfast, but come lunch you're at it again! What's wrong with you?
You did it again! Did what? Got chicken! So? So you said you'd stop eating meat, you said so this morning, while you were brushing your teeth.
So, what is wrong with me? Why can't I stop eating meat, even though I really want to and even though I have a supportive vegetarian to help me get there? I tell myself that, technically, I eat very little meat, much less than I ate at the beginning of the summer. All my breakfasts and dinners are vegetarian. But somehow I end up eating meat for lunch every day. First, I blamed it on the poor choice of vegetarian dishes. But that really can't be the reason. Because if I go to La Verde's I can get the eggplant parma sub, at Quiznos the Italian Caprese, at Bertucci's the Tucci pizza and the three-cheese focaccia, and if I really want to be fancy, the Cheesecake Factory has the awesome Portobello on a Bun. Lack of choices is clearly not the reason.
Perhaps it's not the food, it's the way I was brought up to think meat is the central part of any meal. Looking back, I begin to see that Romanians are voracious carnivores. I mean, they think of religious holidays in terms of the animal they're going to kill and eat. If it's Christmas, we're eating pig; if it's Easter, we're eating lamb; and if it's any other random small religious celebration we've got to sacrifice at least a chicken. From my newly found Buddhist point of view, it feels very wrong to celebrate anything by killing another living creature, but let's consider most Romanians to be savages. So, now that I realize that they're savages, I should be extra motivated to be a vegetarian and not be looking for excuses to eat meat. Plus, my girlfriend who grew up in the same culture and eating the same kinds of dishes stopped eating meat totally just two weeks after she tried becoming vegetarian. No, I'm afraid the cultural argument fails completely.
Then again, maybe I'm not motivated enough. Maybe I haven't convinced myself that I want to do this. I became a staunch anti-vegetarian the moment I got to Bard. The vegan and vegetarian students there kept putting posters of mutilated animals in the cafeteria. I really resented them because of those awful images, and therefore I resented their doctrine. Being vegan was nothing new to me; my aunt has been vegan for the past eight years, ever since she took up yoga, but it seemed like a cute eccentricity, not a fierce and demanding doctrine. After a year and a half of hating those annoying vegans, I got to experience one of the best classes Bard had to offer, "Buddhist Thought and Practice" taught by Kristin Scheible. Talk about life changing experiences, in just a few awesome classes with Kristin I decided that being vegetarian was the good karmic way of living. All of a sudden, the images that I kept avoiding in the cafeteria became much more vivid and meaningful. I found a true motivation in the Buddhist way of thought that those kids simply could not communicate as effectively as Kristin. Concepts such as compassion for all sentient beings became relevant while the suffering of animals slaughtered for meat became real. Now, because of Kristin I have ended up giving blood once a month and meditating every day for a Harvard-MIT study trying to prove the benefic effects of meditation on the human stress response. That's why I think her sway should be enough to get me on the right track.
Looking back, I begin to see that Romanians are voracious carnivores. I mean, they think of religious holidays in terms of the animal they're going to kill and eat.
Moreover, I have my girlfriend's underground science reports that give one account after another on how a vegetarian diet improves health. We call them "underground" because they somehow seem to escape the public's notice. They're filled with information such as the fact that a vegetarian diet decreases your chances of developing cancer and it lowers the cholesterol levels in your blood, not to mention that it keeps the hormones and antibiotics they feed livestock out of your body. Therefore, as an emerging scientist, I have another very powerful and convincing motivation to adopt a vegetarian diet.
To add to this, with all the karate I've done over the years, I've developed a Spartan discipline that allows me to do things such as stand in a bus for a three-hour ride just because I want to get to Boston as fast as possible. Well, if lack of motivation and determination are not the reasons why I can't stop eating meat, what is?
I have thought about the theory that all humans are carnivores who simply have to eat meat, and entertained the idea that perhaps I simply like meat and that's why I want to keep eating it. I don't really buy this, though, mainly because meat is almost always the food that makes me sick. Whenever I get a stomachache, it is because the meat was undercooked, or overcooked, or just something I'm not very fond of—like lamb. With vegetables and even cheese it's much easier to avoid food that's gone bad—or that's what my culinary experience tells me.
However, the fact that I consider meat delicious must play an important part. I realize that on the most boring of days I have begun to have no problems eating vegetarian dishes. But whenever I go out to eat or go to a party to celebrate something, I always get the most appetizing meat dish the menu offers. I feel that the situation demands ordering whatever I consider to be the most delicious meal the chef has to offer. And this is what I'm afraid of missing if I become a vegetarian. It's not the everyday lunch that I eat in a hurry between lab and a class, it's the moments that I feel have a particular sentimental significance. Such as my friends and I having a barbeque at our cabin each time I come back home. It just doesn't feel right for me to say: "Guys, you keep eating the steak, I'll just have some roasted eggplant." It's not that I'm worried that I'll be singled out or ridiculed for my culinary choices, I'm simply afraid of the sensation of missing out on an important moment such as this one. I'm already feeling that I get to experience family life only four weeks a year, whenever I go back to Romania. If I were to not eat meat with my dad and brother the way we usually do, I'd probably feel that I'm not home, but somewhere new, experiencing something new.
This is, I guess, what troubles me most about becoming vegetarian. The finality of it all. I am terribly afraid of the sensation of irrevocability that will take over once I get enough courage to claim that I'm a vegetarian. That's why I used to shave my head but refused the idea of a tattoo. Hair grows back and it does that pretty quickly, but a tattoo is pretty much permanent, unless you want to go through some painstaking and probably painful procedure.
It's the same as how I avoid saying that I'm a Buddhist, because I'm afraid I'll see a centipede, freak out and kill it and prove I've just been pretending to be a Buddhist all along.
To add to this fear of irrevocability, there is the fear that I might make a mistake along the way, wasting the entire effort. I steer clear of saying that I am a vegetarian, because I know that occasionally I will enjoy a steak or some fish, at which point anyone can conclude that I am only pretending to be vegetarian. It's the same as how I avoid saying that I'm a Buddhist, because I'm afraid I'll see a centipede, freak out and kill it and prove I've just been pretending to be a Buddhist all along. These two sensations combined make me most hesitant about declaring that I am a vegetarian. I am terrified of making a choice that seems irrevocable while it makes me vulnerable to attack whenever I might disregard that choice and eat meat.
So what am I to do in this situation? Can I say that I'm a vegetarian, or that I'm, at least, working on being one full time? I guess I could. Let's say I was at a restaurant with someone who had recently met me and I ordered an eggplant panini with a side of asparagus. If that person were to ask me "Are you a vegetarian?" my honest and correct reply would be, "I am a person who has the motivation of a vegetarian and is trying to reduce his meat intake to the minimum possible. I do, however, eat meat, but not because I specifically like the taste of meat, nor because I believe in the nutritional value of meat. Instead, I am nostalgic and feel that I am not yet ready to experience the separation anxiety that might result from becoming a full-time vegetarian." Then again, to explain what separation anxiety means in this context would take at least as long as it has taken me to get to this point. So, I'll elegantly avoid the question and answer, "I'm trying to be one!" without giving any reason or interpretation. I do see myself eating less and less meat on a regular basis in the near future. But I don't see myself refusing steak when we go to celebrate New Year's Eve at home in Romania. I'm simply not ready for that yet.